More lunacy from Lomborg

by Tom Bennion on June 25, 2011

Lomborg.jpgNewsweek recently carried an article by Bjorn Lomborg entitled “A Roadmap for the Planet.” His basic thesis, by now familiar to all, is that “exaggerated environmental worries—and the willingness of so many to believe them—could ultimately prevent us from finding smarter ways to actually help our planet and ensure the health of the environment for future generations.” This is because we have successfully dealt with similar issues before. “Although Westerners were once reliant on whale oil for lighting, we never actually ran out of whales. Why? High demand and rising prices for whale oil spurred a search for and investment in the 19th-century version of alternative energy.”

According to Lomborg, we have for generations “consistently underestimated our capacity for innovation.” The fact is that “would-be catastrophes have regularly been pushed aside throughout human history, and so often because of innovation and technological development. We never just continue to do the same old thing. We innovate and avoid the anticipated problems.”

He continues:

“Today, some of the most polluted places in the world are the megacities of the developing world, such as Beijing, New Delhi, and Mexico City. But remember what happened in developed countries. Over a period of several hundred years, increasing incomes were matched by increasing pollution. In the 1930s and 1940s, London was more polluted than Beijing, New Delhi, or Mexico City are today.
Eventually, with increased affluence, developed countries gradually were better able to afford a cleaner environment.”

This is a key argument in the article. The point is highlighted with contrasting pictures of clear skies over London compared to very smoggy looking shot of Shanghai.

He closes with the complaint that we are taking the wrong approach.

“… instead of first making sure that everybody is better off and more resilient, our response to global warming has been to try to cut back carbon emissions too soon. In reality, this means reining in growth and making do with less than we could have otherwise.
But this approach flies in the face of history. The way we have made progress against disease, malnutrition, and environmental degradation in the past is by growing, by discovering, and by innovating.”

This is classic Lomborg. People are overstating the problem, regulation won’t work, innovation will save us, sans any particular economic, policy or legislative measures to incentivise that innovation.

But what is most intriguing about the article is the staggering own goal which Lomborg scores by using the example of London’s air quality.

As anyone who has read any environmental history knows (and anyone who has access to the internet can find out in 2 minutes flat), London struggled for decades to rein in its smog problem through weak and ineffectual legislation. Then, in 1952, at least four thousand people died from 5 days of intense pollution in the city known as the Great Smog (recent research estimates 12,000). Around 100,000 people were affected with respiratory illnesses. The government, which was exporting low sulphur coal and burning high sulphur coal at home to maximise revenues, initially resisted any law change, and invented an influenza epidemic to explain the smog deaths.

Eventually, in 1956 a Clean Air Act was passed which, by banning emissions of “smoke” effectively prevented the use of coal for domestic heating in the city. Yes, you heard that right. No cap and trade, offsets, grandfathering, soft taxes or any other such nonsense. And you can be sure that there were thousands of poor people affected, who had aspirations for a better life, and wanted to go on burning coal. But the community realised that they faced an ongoing environmental catastrophe and decline of the city if they did not act decisively. As the National Society for Clean Air explains, the smog marked “the dividing line between the general acceptance of air pollution as a natural consequence of industrial development, and the understanding that progress without pollution control is no progress at all.”

So contrary to Lomborg’s thesis, the real innovation, and a large part of the reason why the vibrant city of London enjoys clean air today, was the stringent regulation of emissions. We can agree with Lomborg that London’s example is one that Shanghai should emulate, just not in the way he thinks.

We can also learn from the London example that:

  • We should not wait for environmental catastrophe is upon us before acting.
  • Weak regulations do not work.
  • Vested economic interests will resist stronger regulation, and may even mislead to obscure their real agenda.
  • But strong regulation works, and brings greater prosperity for all.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Doug June 25, 2011 at 3:29 pm

Off course his argument for innovation is based on a price signal (high price of whale oil reflecting it’s increasing scarcity).

The issue with AGW is the reducing capity of the atmosphere/hydroshpere to maintain temperatures within tolerable bounds and no price signal in place to reflect this.

In the absence of a price signal innovation limps along from Government hand out to govt hand out, which despite the claims of the skeptics is insignificant compared to the investment in the status quo.

Bryan Walker June 25, 2011 at 3:30 pm

Glad to see you holding Lomborg to account Tom, and putting in a word for simple government regulation along the way. I don’t think Lomborg reads or understands any climate science at all. I recall the shocking spectacle of him appearing on a panel at a PEN conference following James Hansen. Hansen had in his measured and careful way set out the scientific basis of his concern. Lomborg immediately, without any reference whatsoever to the science spoke of the need for “balanced information” and a move from the end-of-world kind of story. It was crass.

bill June 25, 2011 at 5:08 pm

He’s not even correct in his hand-waving assumptions. Where the hell does he think the International Whaling Commission came from?

We did indeed ‘run out of whales’, in the same sense that we’re about to ‘run out’ of oil; splitting hairs about decline vs. scarcity (and what were the end-uses of the oil) is simply tedious and a standard misinformation tactic, to boot. Even a quick trip to Wikipedia tells us –

It is estimated that the historic worldwide sperm whale population numbered 1,100,000 before commercial sperm whaling began in the early 18th century. By 1880 it had declined an estimated 29 per cent. From that date until 1946 the population appears to have recovered somewhat as whaling pressure lessened, but after the Second World War, with the industry’s focus again on sperm whales, the population declined even further to only 33 per cent. It has been estimated that in the 19th century between 184,000 and 236,000 sperm whales were killed by the various whaling nations, while in the modern era, at least 770,000 were taken, the majority between 1946 and 1980.

Remaining sperm whale populations are large enough so that the species’ conservation status is vulnerable, rather than endangered. However, the recovery from the whaling years is a slow process, particularly in the South Pacific, where the toll on males of a breeding age was severe.

So, here we have yet another poorly-managed resource that could only be saved by intervention, regulation and international agreement! Score Regulationists 1; Free-Market™ Pollyannas 0

Bob Bingham June 25, 2011 at 5:27 pm

The big problem with CO2 is that you can not see it or smell it and there is a 40 year plus delay for it to take effect. By the time market forces come into play we will have lost most of our farming and millions of people will be dyeing.
In much the same way that the whales did.
Do we have to wait until there are only 33% of us left before we stop burning coal. .

Dappledwater June 25, 2011 at 6:07 pm

It’s a sad, sad view that brandishes London as some sort of environmental standard. The place is a dump. Just check out the state of the Thames River. Yes, it’s not as bad as before, but that’s nothing to be proud of.

Gareth June 25, 2011 at 7:09 pm

Actually, there have been salmon in the river in recent years.

And I object to the place being described as a dump. Big city, yes, which may not be to everyone’s taste, but I lived there for 20 years and love large parts of the place, still.

Dappledwater June 25, 2011 at 9:13 pm

Yes Gareth, much work has been done to clean up the river, but it’s still a mess. When I say dump I’m referring to the condition of the natural environment.That millions of people live there and are oblivious to this fact, reflects why the world is in such a sorry state.

And no, I’m not singling out London, most cities are the same. I feel the same about Auckland – it’s a polluted dump too, yet I’m sure many people love the place too, and just turn a blind eye to all the environmental degradation.

It’s a consequence of modern society I suspect, if people relied more upon their immediate environment for sustenance, they’d be more inclined to keep it in a healthy condition. That’s not an ironclad guarantee though, as the ancient Maya and Easter Island Rapanui collapses attest to.

bill June 26, 2011 at 11:34 am

Heads-up Gareth – you’re linked to in the latest Conversation posting by David Karoly (sorry, couldn’t easily find the open thread!), specifically the SciBlogs HT duplicate post reprinting James Renwick’s response to Carter.

Well done!

Gareth June 26, 2011 at 12:10 pm

Thanks, spotted that yesterday, I hope it’s giving Sciblogs some traffic…

bill June 26, 2011 at 4:08 pm

…particularly from those whose browsers sport the Alexa bar! ;-)

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